WASHINGTON -- The House yesterday took its first solemn step down a road that could lead to the impeachment of President Clinton by voting overwhelmingly to release immediately to the public independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report on the president's sex scandal.
The weight of the historic vote hung heavily on representatives, especially Democrats, who are deeply divided between impulses political self-preservation and their duty to uphold a Constitution that gives them the sole authority to launch impeachment proceedings.
Some Democrats feared that the immediate release of damning and salacious details would hurt their party's chances in the November elections. But at the same time, they feared that a vote for secrecy might appear to the public as stonewalling to protect a wounded president.
Though the debate was marked by partisan charges and countercharges, the final tally -- 363-63 -- revealed an overwhelming sentiment that members of both parties dare not stand in the way of what House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde called "one mighty task: to vindicate the rule of law."
Voting to release the report immediately were 138 Democrats and one independent, Rep. Bernard Sanders of Vermont; 63 Democrats voted against doing so. All 224 Republicans who voted favored the public release.
"Some Democrats voted for it because, quite frankly, they were politically covering their backsides," said Democratic Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, who opposed the report's rapid public release.
Even Democrats who decried the report's immediate release as fundamentally unfair to the president ultimately voted for the measure.
Cummings votes no
All four Maryland Republicans and three of the state's four Democratic representatives voted for the report's immediate release. Only Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore voted against the resolution.
"This is the first step of what could be a long process a sacred process," House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt said in an impassioned plea on the House floor. "This goes to the heart of our democracy. This is not a second election. This is not politics. This is not spinning. This is not polling. This is not a witch hunt. This is not trying to find the facts to support our already reached conclusions. This is a constitutional test."
Likely to create furor
Technically, yesterday's vote had little to do with any impeachment inquiry. But the public disclosure of the salacious details of Clinton's sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky is likely to create a furor that Congress will be unable to ignore, representatives from both parties said.
"This is a train running downhill without a brakeman," said Democratic Rep. James P. Moran Jr. of Virginia.
The House Judiciary Committee has until Sept. 28 to review thousands of pages of appendixes and other material submitted by Starr before the next major release of information.
Next week, the House will vote on a rule governing the remaining steps toward impeachment.
The committee will then decide whether to convene the second presidential impeachment inquiry of this century, a decision that would have to be ratified by the full House. Republicans say that momentous vote might happen this year, possibly after the November election, when a lame-duck House could be summoned back to Washington.
In confronting the implications of yesterday's vote, Republican Rep. Howard Coble of North Carolina invoked the last presidential impeachment inquiry.
"If President Nixon and President Clinton had offered sincere apologies in timely fashions, their problems would likely have been resolved," Coble told the House. "But the time for forgiveness may have passed, and the job of resolving the matter now falls on this, the people's house."
Even prominent Democrats now concede an impeachment inquiry is all but inevitable, though publicly they say an actual vote in the House on articles of impeachment is still a long way off. Indeed, some Democrats were willing, even before they read Starr's report, to declare that there would be no impeachment.
"Four years of investigation have vindicated the president for his public conduct," asserted Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, "since all we're left with is his private life."
The fiercest debate yesterday revolved around whether to give Clinton's lawyers a chance to review and respond to Starr's charges before the public release of the report.
Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York and member of the Judiciary Committee, decried the release -- which came just two days after Starr sent his report to the House -- as "manifestly and grossly unfair."
But other Democrats worried loudly about a more arcane decision to let all 35 members of the House Judiciary Committee review reams of material submitted by Starr that could contain salacious and defamatory information not included in the report's core 445 pages released yesterday.
Most Democrats had hoped to keep that review restricted to Hyde and the committee's top Democrat, John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, hoping that would limit damaging leaks from Capitol Hill.
Though both points may seem small, the rhetoric they produced was heated -- and could portend deep divisions that would wreak havoc on politically sensitive impeachment proceedings.
"This feels today like we're taking a step down the road to becoming a political lynch mob," fumed Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington state. "Find the rope, find the tree and ask a bunch of questions later."
"I get the feeling this is, 'Give him a fair trial and hang him,' " said Rep. W. G. "Bill" Hefner, a retiring North Carolina Democrat. "This political. I regret it, and it's one of the reasons I'm going to be so glad I'm getting out of here."
In contrast, most Republicans remained silent, following the admonition of House Speaker Newt Gingrich to avoid partisanship.
But House Republican Whip Tom DeLay, who has already demanded the president's resignation, could not resist a swipe at Clinton for publicly lying in January about his relationship with Lewinsky and for debriefing witnesses who went before Starr's grand jury.
Laying out a path to redemption, DeLay called for contrition, confession and cleansing.
"We're at the cleansing part, accepting the consequences of your actions," DeLay said, "and being honorable enough to accept the consequences of your action rather than the spin, the whole spin and nothing but the spin."
Pub Date: 9/12/98